Many Working-Class Women Are Already Leaning In

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The gender-discrimination lawsuit against WalMart, New York's new Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and other efforts show that Sheryl Sandberg's advice isn't only for the elite.

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Larry Downing/Reuters

"Social gains are never handed out," Sheryl Sandberg writes in her new book, Lean In. "They must be seized."

Sandberg's focus is on women in professional and managerial positions, and many writers have criticized her for offering advice that doesn't apply to poor or working-class women. But all women benefit from reflection—and action—on the question she urges each of us to ask: "What would I do if I weren't afraid?"

What helps many women move past fear is not having to act alone. Support from other women in the same situation—and even more, taking action as a group on behalf of all of us as we address the external barriers—gets us on our feet, turning our personal struggles into power.

Across this country, groups of women, many of them in the most precarious and least supportive jobs, are already leaning in because they have been leaning together.

Many women have had it with paychecks that leave no way to keep the lights on or pay for gas because there's too much month at the end of the money. They're tired of being squeezed between a call from school to pick up a sick child and a boss who says you'll be fired if you do.

More and more, these women are leaning together, in groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance. NDWA brings together the women whose skilled and valuable work makes possible all other work—including that of corporate executives, as Sandberg acknowledges. Women working as nannies and housekeepers and home care workers are gathering to share their stories and their dreams. By recognizing each other's strengths, they begin to see, value and understand their own. And the needs that they experienced as individual struggles become something different: conditions they can change together.

These women are seizing rights they've been denied for decades through a persistent well-organized and festive movement. They're demanding to be covered by employment law and to secure the most basic protections.

And they're winning. In New York State, the organization won a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that acknowledges in the law, for the first time, that their labor is work subject to the same oversight and protections of other workers. That includes minimum wage and overtime guarantees, accurate job descriptions, and a few days off for rest or recovery. Similar bills are being introduced in other states.

The domestic workers are not alone. Women who keep the shelves stocked at Walmart, who keep office buildings gleaming, who prepare and serve our food, who care for our frail loved ones, are among women who are changing the rules and the culture that will help all women, including those at the top. While these women are in some of the lowest paying jobs in the country, it is their work that is keeping our economy running—and their work to improve these jobs will also boost the economy for all of us.

Leaning together and then leaning in, women are winning changes in the workplace. Retail workers are fighting for fair pay and predictable schedules. Home care workers have organized to bargain collectively. Hotel workers in Long Beach, California won a livable wage and earned sick days; restaurant workers across the country are organizing to do the same. All of these groups are part of broad coalitions that are winning new public policies like paid sick days and affordable family leave.

Women of color, including many immigrants, are often leading these fights to change the opportunities and realities for all women. Women like Ai-jen Poo, Saru Jayaraman, and Maria Elena Durazo are transforming the public face of labor leaders. They remind us that the fight for gender equality goes hand in hand with the fight for racial justice and a voice on the job.

This work is not easy. As Sandberg acknowledges several times, "women often have good cause to be reluctant to advocate for their own interests because doing so can easily backfire."

The Lean-In circles Sheryl Sandberg is launching can learn from these women and can also support their efforts. In addition to the need to stick together, they remind us that sometimes we need to lean into those who are responsible for inequality and make them stop.

Yes, we need more women at the top. When women and every other group who've been excluded are able to reach their potential, we all benefit. But in addition to having more women in power, we need more power in the hands of all women. That's what will ensure that those at the top are responsive to the rest of us—and that no one has to be afraid.

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Ellen Bravo is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 20 state coalitions working to win paid sick days and affordable family leave.

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